Kingston High School senior Ali Mitchell was born to swim. But after overcoming a serious back injury sustained during her freshman year, Mitchell very nearly didn’t get her final victory lap due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But when the delayed “Fall 2” was announced for March of this year, Mitchell was right back in the pool alongside her Tiger teammates.
“I’ve always wanted to swim,” said Mitchell. “I’ve been swimming since I was six. And I think ever since I was younger, I’ve always had this idea in my head looking forward to the highest level that I’ll be able to swim at, which at one point was college swimming. But right now it’s high school, and to be able to swim with some of my best friends and swim for them, well, that’s the most important thing.”
Mitchell swam competitively from an early age with the Hurley Tiger Sharks Swim Team and later joined the Kingston High swim team in the seventh grade, where she swam alongside her older sister Abby, a 2019 Kingston High School grad.
“I felt like the coolest person ever,” Mitchell said of being able to swim with older athletes. And things went well for a couple of seasons. But in her freshman year at Kingston High, Mitchell was on a rail trail run with some friends when the first sign of trouble hit her.
“All of a sudden my gait was totally gone,” Mitchell said. “Running has always come easy to me and I felt so graceful. And then all of a sudden I felt like I had to put so much effort in to put just one foot in front of the other…And at the end of my freshman track season, I couldn’t run anymore and I had to stop.”
Mitchell returned for her sophomore year ready to compete in swimming.
“I worked really hard that summer,” she said. “And then near the middle of the season, I just felt like I was swimming with a piano on my back. In January of her sophomore year, the pain finally became too great to push through.
I went to the athletic trainer and had a conversation with Coach (Chris) Sammons and Rachel (Meyers), the athletic trainer. And we basically said that I need to get this checked out.”
Mitchell saw multiple doctors and underwent numerous MRIs and x-rays and it was concluded that she had bilateral spondylosis and grade 2 spondylosisthesis with four fractures in her back that due to the slipping vertebrae was also causing nerve damage and pain. It wasn’t until seeing Dr. Joseph W. Dryer, an orthopedic and spine surgeon at NYU Langone, that there was some hope on the distant horizon. But first there was discomfort.
“He said that I should try wearing this brace for three months and we’ll see what happens,” Mitchell said. The hope was that the brace would help correct the problem, but it hadn’t. By the start of her junior year, Mitchell knew she would have to take further steps to correct the problem.
“I remember coming back from school and taking off the brace and wondering if I felt any stronger and if anything, I felt weaker,” she said. “And we informed the doctor about it, and he said the only thing left to do is surgery. So in October I got spinal fusion and they put a new disc in my back where the disintegrated disc was and put five screws in my back.”
During her recovery, Mitchell was a fixture at Kingston High School swim meets, inspiring and cheering on her teammates. She finally began feeling like her old self again around March 2020 when the pandemic hit; for a young athlete who’d already seen everything change rather suddenly, suddenly everything was changing again.
“There’s nothing like being in swimming shape during quarantine,” Mitchell said. “I would get up around 6:30 every day and work out on a stationary bike. I couldn’t run yet, but I would do core exercises for an hour, an hour-and-a-half every morning. And it kind of helped with the craziness of the pandemic because I still kept a schedule. And my goal for the end of the quarantine was to be able to run and stuff. So around June, with my athletic trainer, Rachel, we made a plan to run. In July, a local pool opened up that I had a membership at. And so I was allowed to swim pretty much every morning.”
Coach Sammons isn’t just the longtime coach at Kingston High, he’s also the coach of the Kingston YMCA Hurricanes Swim Club and the Tigers Aquatic Club and has been connected to Mitchell’s development as a student-athlete for much of her life.
“Obviously, her role as a captain last year was important, but to be able to actually get in the pool and to be able to do what she’s doing, it means a lot,” Sammons said. “Ali for a long time has been, I would say, the heart and soul of the team, the glue that keeps us together
Because of her injury, Mitchell was unable to use her junior season to showcase her talents for college scouts. She still plans to compete at the club level and see where that takes her. But in the meantime, she’s making the most out of her senior season at Kingston High.
“I do know that these girls will still be my friends outside of swimming,” Mitchell said. “When I couldn’t swim (as a junior), I got to be there. I still got to be a captain. I still got to be there every day with the girls. And I realized that swimming, isn’t just swimming. It’s about the teamwork. It’s about the friendships that you make, the time management that you learn and everything in between.”